Of Tropes and War: Part One

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I do apologize up front if you do not share my continued interest in these Frances Hodgson Burnett novels, because even I thought I would be done by now. Yet I find another aspect that had me in its thrall this week and has occupied my mind in a way that prevents me from finishing my next Felix post of a great new wind-up toy recently acquired. (For anyone who is joining me for the first time, a few earlier posts on Hodgson Burnett’s adult fiction can be found by searching this blog or herehere and here.)

For those of you who are following my passion for Hodgson Burnett’s novels, you may remember that early on I said that the worse the title of one of her stories, generally the better it is and The Head of the House of Coombe falls neatly into that category. As a result I had not grabbed it before this. However, I recently used Goodreads.com to help me figure out what remained of her works that I had not read and create a list of which are novels, as opposed to novellas and short stories, that remained for me to read. For all its greatness Project Gutenberg supplies no information before you download – could be a hundred pages, could be twelve and I like to know what I am getting into when I start a book or story.

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Written originally for serialization it was published as a novel in 1922; it was the fourth most popular book in the United States that year. The sequel, or second part of the book as it was served up to me, is called Robin. It also has a publication date of 1922 so the exact publication history and serialization of the two parts remains somewhat unclear to me. The publication date is mostly of interest to me because of the proximity to the end of WWI, which drives the plot of this novel, and that this book appears to be the last major publication of her life as she dies in 1924. Assuming these were actually written for magazine serialization in 1921 or so, it is a few years after the conclusion of the war and as many before she dies.

However, before we get to the war, we are treated to Burnett in all her glory reveling in several of her favorite Victorian tropes. Robin, the main character, is a commoner ultimately taken up by nobles. She is so purely good and innocent the more cynical nobles quickly become devoted to her. Meanwhile, her mother is a stunningly beautiful chippy, wonderfully named Feather, who it is well-known, a woman kept by the Lord of the House of Coombe.

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FC Yohn illustration of The Head of the House of Coombe as published in Good Housekeeping

 

Meanwhile, in addition to her rags to riches story line for Robin, she also puts her through her paces with two other beloved tropes, illness and spiritual communion or communication. Burnett just loved to plunge her characters, usually a woman but occasionally a man, into a mysterious consumptive wasting state due to separation from or rejection from a beloved, usually a lover. In some way s/he is miraculously revived when reunited with the person in question.

Again, for those of you who have been following me on this path thus far, know that Burnett’s own oldest son Lionel was lost to consumption (TB) just two months before his sixteenth birthday. While blogging about Frances Hodgson Burnett I was contacted by her great-great granddaughter, Keri Wilt, who has a website (fhbandme.com) and an active Instagram account also under the name fhbandme. I began to follow her and she recently posted a photo of a locket Burnett wore with Lionel’s photo. I was a bit fascinated by this post. She shows us the locket and the inscription Farewell to others, but never we part. Heir to my royalty, son of my heart.

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Burnett with son Lionel. The inscription on his grave, “Lionel, whom the Gods loved”.

 

She also quotes a letter of Burnett’s about her son’s death, It will seem almost incredible to you, as it does to others, when I tell you he never did find out. He was ill nine months but I never allowed him to know that he had consumption (tb) or that he was in danger – and when he died he passed away so softly that I know he wakened in the other world without knowing how he had left this one. I can thank God for that. Wowza – not sure what I make of that. Can a 16 year old boy, dying of consumption at that time not at least deeply suspect that he is dying? For me it is overwhelmingly moving though in its need to be true to her. She returns to it again and again in her fiction.

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The wasting unnamed and consumptive disease illustrating an article on this topic.

 

Another deep vein of interest is Hodgson Burnett is her interest in spiritualism which I gather she takes up somewhat later in life. (I am assuming that it ties out to the death of her son but I am not sure I have seen this confirmed.) If I can find more information on where it parallels with her life it will definitely rate a post of its own – this may happen when I get to reading her autobiography which is already in the house. Spirit communication is a frequent plot device with some variations – mystical communication with both the living (but not present) and the dead. The novella The White People is one of several shorter works devoted entirely to the subject. Without being a plot spoiler I will just say that it makes up the major plot weenie (as Kim would say) to the second part of this novel.

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Library of Congress example of spirit photography.

 

Having covered wasting illness, rags to riches plots and touched on spiritualism I leave you for today. Tomorrow I will share the fascinating turn things take with Burnett’s surprisingly graphic descriptions of WWI England which was what really made this book stand out for me.

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